June 2, 2017

Gospel Jn 21:15-19

After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, 

he said to Simon Peter,

"Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?"

Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs."

He then said to Simon Peter a second time,

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." 

He said to him, "Tend my sheep."

He said to him the third time,

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time,

"Do you love me?" and he said to him,

"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,

you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; 

but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,

and someone else will dress you

and lead you where you do not want to go."

He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.

And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."

Dear fellow pilgrims, 

Today in the Gospel, we hear Jesus initiating the apostolic succession of the Catholic Church. How does He do it? He asks a very simple question: "Do you love me?"  It's a heartbreaking and perplexing question in its simplicity, but infinitely far-reaching in its impact on St. Peter's life and all of our lives. This is the heart of the Christian life, not how much we love Jesus, but understanding that committing our love to him requires nothing less than our entire selves.  True love is total, it requires a complete giving and complete transformation and conforming of ourselves to Christ. 

Something new that struck me this time when I read this passage was the order in which Jesus gives commands to Peter, starting from what seems to be the most critical: feeding the lambs, or, as I read it, giving the little ones, the children, the poor, what they need.  He gives the lambs first priority over the sheep, showing how the Church is indeed a mother who looks after her children.  I think of the literal and figurative "feeding," here, as the Church provides life-giving food to the body and soul. 

Next, Jesus tells Peter to "tend" the sheep. To tend means to give direction, "to move or direct," and in this, we can see another duty of the shepherd of the sheep. We can see the symbolism of the staff that the bishops hold. And there are a lot of worried sheep in the church, wondering where we are going... just look at the title of a popular catholic magazine: "Crisis." As we see in the Ascension, the church should always be directed towards Heaven, and the way to Heaven is following Christ. 

Lastly, Jesus tells Peter to "feed" the sheep. I read this as a reminder that sheep need different sustenance than lambs, just like adults need different spiritual formation than children.  

The thing that strikes me the most, however, is that each of these commands was born out of Peter's professions of love for Christ.  How many times does God say in so many forms, "if you love me, you will do what I command"? The command does not come first. Love always comes first. Put another way, if we do not love God, we cannot be following Him. If we are just living in a vague state of "I'm doing what I think I should be doing", we are not truly following Jesus. 

And during our lifetime, Jesus does not limit opportunities to return to His love and following His commands. Peter denied Jesus three times, and Jesus gave him three opportunities to profess his love for Him, presenting the path of repentance ahead of him.  For every one of our mistakes, the Lord will pave new roads for us to learn to love Him again, and with even greater fervor out of the gratitude for our even greater redemption. 

Sometimes I get bogged down in feelings of "not being as holy as I was then," or by the repetition of what seems to be the same sins that keep me from the Lord, but this is really just digging myself further into my own own hole and then being more and more frustrated that I can't pull myself out of it. My friends! Let's not over-complicate the spiritual life... Jesus will always forge a path of redemption back to Him for every sin that diverts our path.  And, He will sustain us on that path, He will feed us. 

Look at what precedes this conversation between Jesus and Peter: Jesus leads Peter back to him by giving him an abundance of food (fish), then feeds him breakfast and only after all of that, asks him three times if he loves Him. Jesus allowed the sins of Peter so that he would know the depth of what it means to be loved and truly forgiven, in order that the might forgive and love others.  Peter has been the lost sheep in need of shepherding, in need of direction and food, and now Jesus asks if he would be the shepherd.  He needed to be last in order to be first in the Church.  

And so he starts again, answering Jesus' call to follow Him... again. And we, likewise, should never be ashamed of picking up our mats and choosing to follow Jesus again and again, because it's not a question of whether we are strong enough to continue or have enough "holy points" to carry us through times of sinfulness, it's much simpler: do we love Jesus? He asks us this question individually, in the silence of our hearts, every day. "Do you love me, Alyssa? Do you love me, Lauren? Do you love me, Weronika? Andy? Sarah? Bonnie?" Let us love our Lord with all our heart, and lean not on our own understanding. Let us allow Him to make our paths straight, again and again, knowing that He is the only way, truth, and life.

Frassati NY